Have you ever felt like you are addicted to food? I can’t tell you how many of my clients have expressed this belief about themselves. Is food addiction even a thing? The research on food addiction is very limited, but I can share with you some of the latest research and what we do know.
First, it’s very important to clarify that food addiction is a process addiction. That means it is the act of eating and the feelings you have about eating certain foods that is addictive, not the food itself. As you engage in overeating and eating foods you consider bad or trigger foods, your brain releases dopamine which makes you feel good. After chronically overeating, the dopamine receptors are down regulated and then you need to eat more and more to get the same dopamine response. This is the same process that occurs in other addictions like gambling, shoplifting, gaming, and phone use.
Many people falsely believe that food addiction is a chemical addiction like drugs or alcohol. That’s not so. Drugs and alcohol contain chemicals that are physically addictive. But foods commonly considered addictive (flour, sugar, salt, and chocolate) are not actually chemically addictive. Sure, they do make you feel good, but you are not dependent on them. For example, if you find chocolate to be a trigger food for you then when you eat chocolate you feel a hit of dopamine. You have a piece of chocolate and then want more and more. However, let’s say you don’t find orange juice to be a trigger food and so when you drink orange juice, there is no dopamine hit. So, it’s not the sugar from the chocolate or the juice, it’s the act of eating something that you feel is forbidden or you have strong feelings about.
The act of overeating causes a similar pathway in the dopamine response. The more you overeat, the less your body releases dopamine and then you need to eat more and more to get the same response. Just like gambling and gaming, for example.
So, what does all this mean? It’s good news actually. It means you don’t have to avoid your favorite foods forever because you think you are “addicted” to them and you have to abstain like you would from alcohol. It means that you can eat your favorite foods in moderation after learning how to manage cravings, compulsive eating desires, and your feelings surrounding certain foods.
How do you do that?
1. Keep a food journal where you write down the food you eat, your level of hunger/fullness, and the feelings you have surrounding that meal/snack.
2. Identify the emotions that lead up to overeating/compulsive eating.
3. Try to catch yourself when you are feeling those emotions and deal with them in a more constructive way.
This list is very simplified. I know it’s not as easy as that. It takes a lot of introspection, outside support, and patience with yourself. And that’s what I am here to help with. I want you to feel in control of food instead of food controlling you. Sign up for my Intentional Eating 101 program and you can start your journey to feeling better and getting healthier!